European Affairs

European Parliament’s Research Arm Hits Stride; Boosts Ties with U.S. Congressional Counterpart     Print Email
By Brian Beary, European Affairs Editor at Large

BrianBeary.new1Two years up and running, the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) continues to expand as MEPs enhance their capacity to do policy analysis independently of the EU Commission. A new report, to be published soon, from EPRS examining how government oversight is carried out in the United States is an indicator of how much Parliament is looking across the pond for guidance with this initiative.

The report is the fruit of a year’s labor from an EPRS researcher deployed from Brussels to Washington to study how Congressional investigations, along with supporting institutions such as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Government Accountability Office, function. The U.S. has developed extensive, well-resourced oversight tools, enjoying almost a two century head-start on the EU. However, their EU counterparts such as the EPRS are keen to catch up.

The EPRS is largely the brainchild of Klaus Welle, Secretary General of the Parliament. Boasting a staff of 320, the service was formed by merging Parliament’s existing library and impact assessment divisions with a new unit of policy researchers. Responding to requests from 751 MEPs, by July 2015 the EPRS had produced 600 analytical publications and its services had been used by 70 percent of members.

Publications with special resonance for the transatlantic relationship include ones on U.S. counter-terrorism policiesinvestment issues in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and how EU member states are tackling the ‘foreign fighters’ terror threat.

Development of the EPRS has not been entirely uncontroversial. There have been reports that Parliament’s President, Martin Schulz, is less enthusiastic than Welle about it. Welle is an avowed Amerophile who advocates for instituting a ‘checks and balances’ model of government for the EU along the lines enshrined in the U.S. constitution. For Welle, the EPRS is an essential tool enabling Parliament to exert better oversight of the Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

These two Parliamentary bigwigs, both German, have a longstanding rivalry. Schulz previously led the Parliament’s Socialist group and stood unsuccessfully as the socialist candidate in the 2014 elections for EU Commission President during the so-called Spitzenkandidat process. Welle is a technocrat who emerged from the ranks of the center-right European Peoples Party. He served as chief-of-staff to Hans-Gert Pottering, a German Christian Democrat and Parliament President from 2010-12.

Dispelling reports the two men don’t see eye to eye on the project, Joe Dunne, Acting Director of the EPRS directorate for impact assessments, told European Affairs “President Schulz has been very supportive of our work.” Schulz was especially keen to strengthen the EPRS’ capacity to do impact assessments on Commission proposals, he said. The goal is for MEPs to become less reliant on the Commission’s analyses by equipping itself with teams of in-house specialists that study how legislation is being implemented and what the outcomes are. This shows the EP’s role is evolving beyond being just “an efficient voting machine,” Dunne said.

The MEP with primary responsibility for the EPRS is Parliament Vice-President Ramon Luis Valcarcel Siso, a Spanish member from the European Peoples Party. According to Valcarcel, "EPRS offers a wealth of information and research, not only through its publications, but also through its events, which foster debates and exchange of ideas."

Growing EPRS-CRS bond

When the EPRS was being set up, “We looked at the CRS as a template for how parliamentary scrutiny of government should be done,” Dunne said. The CRS, which forms part of the Library of Congress, was established in 1914 and has staff of 650. It is the go-to source for Members seeking in-depth analysis on a timely topic. It prides itself on being non-partisan, a path that the EPRS is keen to follow.

There is growing EPRS-CRS collaboration, including regular staff visits and joint video-conferences to discuss topics of common interest such as tax evasion, data privacy, climate change and Syria. “It has been a good relationship from the start,” said a CRS official involved in these collaborations. CRS Deputy Director Colleen Shogan told European Affairs “we think it’s incredibly important for every democratic institution to have access to authoritative, nonpartisan information, and we’re glad to have a close working relationship with EPRS to help both of our clients better understand the issues – like trade, energy, economics, immigration and agriculture – that are affecting all of us in this globalized world.”

Despite their commonalities, the EPRS and CRS differ in one important aspect: confidentiality policy. From the outset, Parliament decided that all EPRS reports would be made publicly available online. In contrast, CRS reports are reserved for the Members of Congress. Neither institution looks likely to change their respective policies in the near future.